I very nearly did not write this piece. I was doubtful that its subject matter was worth being promoted from a scattering of private and loosely collected thoughts to something public and at least a little more organized. What convinced me to press ahead was an unexpected utterance from a member of staff at a Belgian bar in London, which I had visited with the dual purpose of enjoying a couple of beers and attempting to set down the aforementioned thoughts in a notebook. So here I go…
Structure of this piece
My purpose here is simple. I will offer a three-pronged justification of the 'six-chapter story' as a FORMAT OF CHOICE for Impudent Raven – an imprint that I established, in part, for self-publishing nature-centred fiction, under the pen name Dewey Dabbar. The first prong offers a cursory defence of the possible literary merits of the format; the second covers what I shall call the 'natural stability' of the number six; and the third explores the way in which this number has seemed to cling to me.
With these three prongs, added to the brief introduction, the present section on structure, and the concluding thoughts, the piece comprises six parts.
Possible literary merits
As a starting point to this section, it can be stated that six-chapter stories are a literary entity in the same way that it can be said that five-chapter stories, seven-chapter stories, and forty-three chapter stories exist. Beyond that, there appears to be little in the way of specific consideration of the six-chapter story as a discrete format. In the small number of instances where I can find it being referenced, it is either in a writing assignment for younger children or as a reading exercise aimed at helping individuals to gain the confidence to go on to tackle more expansive texts. In short, the format has been offered as a stepping stone for developing writers or readers. Yet, if flash fiction and novels are both credible formats for literature, then there is no reason why something of an intermediate nature cannot also be.
While a six-chapter story could, with extremely short sections, qualify as flash fiction, or, with exceptionally long ones, as a novel, it will typically end up with a length that people might describe as being that of a long short story or a short novella. But what does this mean for its nature?
Well, if we consider flash fiction and other formats at the ultra-short end of the spectrum, we have a format in which every single sentence may be of major consequence to the telling of the story, and characters must emerge from descriptions of an economical nature. At the other end of the spectrum, in the lengthy novel, the writer has much more scope not just for expansive representations of characters, incidents, and settings but also for asides of varying frivolousness. (Where writers retreat into parentheses in flash fiction, they will generally have a very strong reason for doing so.)
The six-chapter story is an intermediate format and thus calls on the writer to show self-restraint in their narrative style while still giving some room for words, clauses, and passages that may be insignificant in every way except for the small matter of enhancing the experience of the reader. It also, in necessarily dividing the story being told into discrete sections, differs from the type of long short story in which the narrative has, more or less, a continuous flow.
Now, even if amenable to the idea of intermediate-format fiction, one might reasonably ask why there is a need to impose what seems to be an arbitrary constraint on the structure. In countering that, I would first cite an example of a precedent, which is the 101-WORD STORY. I would also note that one of the great challenges of writing fiction is the essentially boundless universe of possibility, and having some constraint in place can help with breaking free of the paralysis that can be triggered by a blank sheet of paper. If nothing else, the six-chapter format gives a writer the first twelve words for free: "Chapter one, Chapter two," and so on. There is also a rebuttal to the charge of arbitrariness that is particularly relevant to eco-fiction. Specifically, the fondness for the number six mirrors a preference in nature, as will be discussed in the next section.
The 'natural stability' of the number six
The number six recurs throughout the ecosphere in relation to stability. The most species-rich class, the insects, is characterized by the six-leggedness of its members. This is nature's solution to stable terrestrial locomotion in small animals encased in an exoskeleton, the most diverse kind of organism on the Earth. Staying with insects, the honeycomb structure of packed hexagonal columns is an elegant and material-efficient means for the honey bee to construct stable multi-celled structures. Another example of the number six lending itself to stability in nature is in the six-faced, cube-like scat of wombats, which is thought to make it more easily stackable (for marking territories and attracting mates) and less liable to roll away. Moving from the biotic to the abiotic, ice crystals cannot help but grow with six-fold rotational symmetry. While, at the molecular level, the crystals of diamond – the Earth's hardest natural material – comprise atoms that have six-proton nucleuses.
The number six and me
In my daily life, I have to contend with some of the classic manifestations of obsessive–compulsive personality disorder. One of these is what I describe as an inability to ignore certain sources of unspent potential energy. If the parting of curtains has left one side rucked up on a radiator, say, then I find it hard to think about anything else until the material has been straightened. It is not so much the untidiness as the fact that the curtain is waiting to fall. I once endured a nightmare of an exam (as part of my Zoology finals) where a bag of treasury tags was hanging over the edge of a table near mine and threatening to drop to the floor. For three hours, that unspent potential energy prevented me from focusing on the paper in front of me. A loose marble on the tabletop would have been even more distracting (wombat scat is thus something of which I very much approve). The converse of this is that I am fond of stability and thus, for reasons described above, like the number six.
I think that the number six also likes me, as it often shows up in my life in triplicate. To give an example: when I came into the world, Iron Maiden's Number of the Beast had, in the most recently announced chart, completed its second week as the number-one selling UK album. Years later, the randomly assigned number of the landline given to me in my first home ended in 666.
For all of this, I cannot claim to be the greatest devotee of the number six. That title must surely go to David Ashworth, a British social scientist who changed his name in 1983 to Perri 6. Journals have sometimes struggled with knowing how to present this name in the papers of which he has been an author. In an article published in the Journal of Consumer Behaviour, for instance, they took his name to be not Dr Perri 6 but Dr 6 Perri. The mistake, one has to say, is rather forgivable. Incidentally, the paper, which was published in '06, has, to date, been cited in other works a total of six times.
Back in the bar
Finally, I return to my visit to the Belgian bar in London. I was jotting down some rough notes about the number six and swallowing self-doubt in between sips of strong beer (how forcefully, I wondered, could I lean on an Iron Maiden album and the tail-end of a phone number?). I then tilted my head upwards so that my eyes could fall on the back of the bottle from which the beer I was drinking had been poured. What caught my attention was a small hexagon on the label that signified that the beer was an authentic Trappist product, thus guaranteeing to me that the drink was made where it said it was (at a particular abbey) and, even more importantly, that no profit was sought by the producers in its selling.
The beer had been recommended to me by a member of staff who had been notably attentive since I had settled down in my corner and placed my notepad on the table. (With my scruffy appearance, it is unlikely that they had taken me to be a restaurant critic, but I did wonder if they had clocked me as a possible beer blogger.) As I stared at the six-sided symbol of Trappist authenticity and wondered if this was the sign I needed to feel confident in my own story, the member of staff returned to the table with a suggestion for my next drink. Not only was the name of the beverage new to me, its enunciation caught me entirely by surprise. The exact phrase that came out of the staff member's mouth (and, as I have mentioned, I had a notebook handy to capture it) was this: "We've got a new beer in on tap. It's made by Duvel with six different hops. The strength is 6.6%. And it's called 666." ■
After writing this post, I decided to keep track of all six-chapter stories that I encountered in future reading. Here is the resulting list: The Gioconda Smile (Aldous Huxley); The Pearl (John Steinbeck).